BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Administrators at the UT System and professors at UT-Brownsville say SpaceX was the catalyst for increased collaboration and partnerships between UT and higher education institutions in Mexico.

Recently, UT-Rio Grande Valley and Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology), otherwise known as CONACYT, signed a Memorandum of Understanding to facilitate an expansion of research, faculty and students associated with space exploration and research.

In the near future, a more expansive MOU is expected to be signed between the UT System and CONACYT that will cover a myriad of disciplines, not just space. Dr. Randall J. Charbeneau, assistant vice chancellor for research at the UT System, said the development of the SpaceX commercial rocket launch facility at Boca Chica beach near Brownsville, spurred discussions with CONACYT.

“A number of things came together at the same time that led to these discussions on educational and research collaboration. One was the announcement by SpaceX that they would be developing their launch and control facility at Boca Chica,” Charbeneau told the Guardian.

“When SpaceX was applying for its environmental impact statement and permissions to possibly locate at Boca Chica they had a chance to interact with a group out of Brownsville, UTB, called the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy (CARA). That is Rick Jenet’s group. SpaceX folks were very impressed with the students in the program.”

Rick Jenet, director of the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy at UTB, wants to see more education and research partnerships with universities in Mexico.
Rick Jenet, director of the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy at UTB, wants to see more education and research partnerships with universities in Mexico.

Fredrick ‘Rick’ Jenet is the creator of the STARGATE project and director of CARA. STARGATE is a partnership between UTRGV and SpaceX to develop and support commercialization of phased-array technology for satellite and space vehicle communication. Gov. Rick Perry recently announced $9 million in funding for STARTGATE.

Charbeneau said CARA is one of the largest producers of Hispanic physicists in the country. “It is a very successful program. They developed this kind of idea of a partnership, where the UT part of this would apply for some funding to work with SpaceX, primarily on the communications side, communicating with satellites. They are drawing excellent students from the Valley.”

While this was happening, Charbeneau said, Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto were signing their Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research, otherwise known as FOBESII. The plan is to get far more student exchanges established between the U.S. and Mexico.

“Discussions with the Mexican Consulate’s Office in Brownsville started. CONACYT sponsors research in Mexico and does fellowship support for Mexican students both domestically and internationally. It was suggested that maybe we could develop an agreement with CONACYT to have some of the excellent students coming out of the Mexican universities to come over to UTRGV for the latter part of their degrees,” Charbeneau explained.

Discussions with CONACYT began and this led to Charbeneau and Jenet traveling to Mexico City.

“We met with representatives from a couple of their university systems as well as with

Arturo Borja Tamayo, director of evaluation and international cooperation for CONACYT. While we were there, Rick and I signed an agreement between CONACYT and UTRGV that says we can do this exchange of research and of faculty and students,” Charbeneau explained.

Once this MOU was signed, more ambitious collaborative efforts were discussed.

“The idea was brought up by Arturo that it would be nice to have an overarching umbrella agreement between the UT System and CONACYT. Right now they have such an agreement with the University of California System. So, we are in the midst of working out such an agreement,” Charbeneau said.

Charbeneau said that while UT has a lot of relationships with Mexico and other Latin American countries, there is nothing approaching the type of overarching umbrella agreement proposed by Borja. And he explained that while a lot of discussions about collaboration with Mexican institutions are currently underway, there is nothing really completed yet except the agreement between CONACYT and UTRGV dealing with the space communications area and SpaceX. However, he said he expects more partnerships to develop and soon.

“We are hoping to, within even a few weeks, sign an agreement that allows us to more easily collaborate with Mexico both in terms in research. Not just in space research but in other areas as well, as well as with their university systems,” Charbeneau said.

“We talked with representatives from the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico. They have about 350,000 to 400,000 students. We also talked with UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). UNAM is huge. They are interested in working with us and this umbrella will give us the mechanism to develop agreements which would be much more specific. Those would be directed between faculties and universities but would allow the exchange of research programs and students and faculty between the institutions.”

Charbeneau then explained how the UT System got involved.

“We came into the picture after Rick Jenet had done a lot of the legwork. SpaceX announced they were looking at four locations for a launch facility within the United States and one of those was Puerto Rico, Florida, Georgia and then South Texas. When they were visiting South Texas they had a chance to interact with the students in the CARA program and apparently hit it off very, very, well.

“Steve Davies is the technical lead for SpaceX. He came over and saw the CARA facilities and visited with the students. They have a lot of experience with communications. They are wonderful at providing technical communication presentations. I really think the original announcement that SpaceX was considering the possibility of moving to that area is what brought forward the idea of applying for some funding from the State that could be used to support the program.”

In his interview with the Guardian, Jenet said he is a strong supporter of increased education and research collaboration with Mexican universities.

“We are one region down here on the border and we should be aligning our education plan and our vision to have one plan, one goal on where we want the Americas to go. We want to increase the talent pool we have access to. We started talking with the Mexican government to promote having talented Mexican students working in our programs at UTRGV,” Jenet said.

“The undersecretary for North America, Sergio M. Alcocer, is the brains behind a lot of these efforts that are happening. His vision I support, of having one region of knowledge here at the border. We are really excited about this project of trying to be able to get talented Mexican students into our programs.”

Jenet said his department’s mission at UTB and the mission of UTRGV when it opens is to make South Texas a leader in space exploration. “We are developing programs to get students involved in all aspects of space mission, from the design of the spacecraft to the scientific payload all the way up through launch and orbital operations. We are really excited about the prospects of getting good Mexican students involved in many of these programs,” Jenet said.

Jenet said that for the last seven years CARA has been developing an integrated research and education program around deep space exploration. “Our students control the world’s largest radio telescopes on campus. They have been making discoveries, discoveries of new stars and have been making an impact in the world science community. One student, Jose Martinez, discovered the tenth known double neutron star systems.”

Asked how important SpaceX is for South Texas, Jenet said: “Obviously it is a game changer for this region, creating enormous opportunities for our researchers and, more importantly, for our students to be involved in various aspects of space exploration and space studies. They will be learning about high technology in the modern society. Students will be exposed to a wide variety of programs. It will be a game changer, no question about it.”

And, referring to the collaboration with Mexico, Jenet added: “We have been working on two letters of intent. We are talking to each other. We are going to make this happen. I am hoping both MOUs will be in place by the end of the year, or early next year. I am really excited about the projects and what this means for students on both sides of the border and what this could mean for the Americas in general.”